Cult Survivor Documents 2 Decades Inside 'Holy Hell' Will Allen directed the documentary Holy Hell, which depicts his experience as a videographer and member of The Buddhafield cult. Allen used his own footage, as well as his interviews with other former members, to make this documentary.
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Cult Survivor Documents 2 Decades Inside 'Holy Hell'

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Cult Survivor Documents 2 Decades Inside 'Holy Hell'

Cult Survivor Documents 2 Decades Inside 'Holy Hell'

Cult Survivor Documents 2 Decades Inside 'Holy Hell'

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Will Allen directed the documentary Holy Hell, which depicts his experience as a videographer and member of The Buddhafield cult. Allen used his own footage, as well as his interviews with other former members, to make this documentary.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Will Allen was in a cult for 22 years. Starting when he was in his early 20s, he lived almost all of his life with the other members of a small spiritual group called The Buddhafield. It was led by a man who called himself Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HOLY HELL")

MICHEL: What would you like to surrender right now?

CORNISH: That's sound of Michel from Will Allen's new documentary "Holy Hell." It's about his time in The Buddhafield. Allen served as the group's videographer, filming their activities.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HOLY HELL")

MICHEL: We're cleansing this person's body. We take away your attachment.

CORNISH: Several members said they had been abused by their leader, the group largely dissolved. And as Will Allen began to repurpose those years of footage for his documentary, he came to understand how he was drawn to the spiritual journey the leader offered.

WILL ALLEN: I loved the community. I mean, we were all really bonded and loved each other. We had these really deep experiences. We had acting classes where we would expose every part of our personality and heal them and deal with them. And so we all got to know each other really well. And there was this unconditional love between us that we just didn't find everywhere. It wasn't really easy to find that. If someone left, they were leaving everyone - all their friends.

CORNISH: And everyone in the film, if you don't mind me saying, is extremely attractive - like, distractingly so.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Like, a lot of the members are very young, very attractive and joyful. And at one point, someone in the documentary says that people in the group used to joke that if this was a cult, it was a really good cult. And what were some of the elements of it that, even back then, people sort of felt like, well, this is really weird, but I find myself being drawn in?

ALLEN: Well, you know, even back then, we had read the signs of a cult. Like, we would see, like, oh, you have a charismatic leader. And we're like, well, we have a charismatic leader, but we're not a cult. You know, all these signs that were warning signs - we would say, well, we have all those characteristics, but we would laugh about it with a self-awareness that we were just too smart for that.

CORNISH: Meaning, like, isolation or - what else?

ALLEN: Well, what was happening with us, which happened slowly over time, like a frog being boiled in water - you don't quite notice it as the heat turns up. But we were systematically isolated - not literally, but effectively - from society, from our parents, from having outside connections. It was all very insular. Like, our community was self-sustainable, and we had everything we needed, so we didn't get new friends. We didn't talk a lot to new people.

CORNISH: There was also mandatory hypnotherapy sessions, which people came to see later as a way for the leader to exert control. Here's some sound of people talking about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HOLY HELL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The thing was that he was a hypnotherapist. That means he had his finger in the psyche of every person that he was dealing with, so he manipulated each and every personality that way.

ALLEN: And this was literally brainwashing. We were doing hypnotic work with people every day. It's brainwashing.

CORNISH: Will Allen, how long did it take you to see this as brainwashing?

ALLEN: Well, it took me a long time, and I still don't even like to use that word, only because it seems like a really easy word to fall back on and throw everything into the brainwashing category, but it was. It was methodical. Every day, we were being reprogrammed. It was brainwashing because we had groupthink, as well. Groupthink is where we all just keep supporting the same thought. And if you thought outside of that, it was criticized, of course, and it was not the way to enlightenment. And I think it's one of those things - I mean, people stay in bad relationships for a long time without being brainwashed, you know? So we had a lot of brainwashing elements, but we also had psychological, emotional ties that kept us there.

CORNISH: Over time, several men in the group alleged that they were coerced into a sexual relationship with Michel - with the group's leader. You were among them. Like, how did these conversations first come up? Because this is what contributes to the dissolution of the group.

ALLEN: Yeah. These conversations between the teacher and these boys, you mean - how that would work?

CORNISH: Yeah, and we do say boys, but these are people right in their 20s.

ALLEN: That's right - 20s and 30s, I believe, but young. It was very slow and methodical. It was nothing - again, like the frog being boiled, you didn't see it coming. It was a slow seduction which I understand later - and looking at it now that I have all the pieces to put the puzzle together - he was a predator. He would use his spiritual teachings to confuse people to go against their normal - their normal grain.

CORNISH: Did you ever, I guess, later on, want to press charges or file a police complaint? I mean, we're talking about this, but, of course, these allegations aren't proven, and the man who goes by Michel is still around, living his life.

ALLEN: Legally, it's hard to prove because none of us were under age, you know, and you have to explain how this happened and that we were really brainwashed. And I think people also - psychologically, you have to understand that we were this family. And it's like - abuse happens all the time in families, and nobody presses charges on Grandpa or Uncle Jim because he's part of the family. And so it took us a long time to separate ourselves psychologically from him, and he had trained us to protect him. He had - he had - he had programmed us to protect him.

CORNISH: Without giving too much away, the group and its leader sort of moves on to Hawaii. Things fall apart. And for a lot of the people you interviewed - your friends and your family - they talk about what it was like when this chapter of their lives kind of came to what felt like an abrupt end. And here's how they described that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "HOLY HELL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I just had 200 of my closest friends who I considered to be family gone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It was kind of like a bomb went off, and, like, a village that I lived in was totally destroyed. That was the feeling it was.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It was like a big death of your family all at once.

CORNISH: What is it like for you to listen to that tape now?

ALLEN: Well, that gets me all swelling up with emotion because it's true, and those are my friends.

CORNISH: It's jarring to hear you say that - right? - to kind of level out allegations of abuse, but then to hear you or any of the people here miss this.

ALLEN: Well, we miss each other. We miss our support that we had with each other. We miss our - we miss each other's company. We supported each other in ways that it's hard to find.

CORNISH: What do you think is the value in putting out this film now? This is somebody who you have gotten a chance to confront. Why do this now?

ALLEN: Well, this wasn't a revenge film. This was an exploration of a subject that I find very, very fascinating - that I lived through, accidentally.

CORNISH: But was it about figuring him out? Or was it figuring out, like, how did we all get duped?

ALLEN: It was - it was that. It was about figuring him out - like what was it real and what wasn't real. It was about figuring out my spiritual identity - like, what was real that I was experiencing. Or was I hysterical? Or was it just ridiculous? Or was it - you know, why did I stay? The main question was - why did we all stay?

And I also felt like all of this became, like, lost footage. I felt like I had done these films over this period of time that - they were like propaganda films for my group and my friends because I only filmed the good things. And as I was trying to come to terms with things afterwards, I realized I never told the whole story. I never was honest. None of us were, and he wasn't. And we were following the leader, and I'm not following the leader anymore. And I can be honest about this, and it's much better to have the whole picture of something like this - the good and the bad that we all lived through.

CORNISH: Will Allen is the director of "Holy Hell." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ALLEN: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

CORNISH: And the documentary "Holy Hell" opens in New York, LA and Austin tomorrow, with wider release next week.

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